Rich Lowry: A safe space for Chaucer
Yale English majors are demanding a safe space from Chaucer.
In a petition to the English department, Yale undergraduates declare that a required two-semester seminar on Major English Poets is a danger to their well-being. Never mind that the offending poets, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, et al., are the foundational writers in the English language. It’s as if chemistry students objected to learning the periodic table or math students rose up against the teaching of differential calculus.
The root of the plaint against the seminar is, of course, the usual PC bean-counting, where prodigious talents who have stood the test of time and explore the deepest questions about what it means to be human are found wanting because they wouldn’t be suitable models for a United Colors of Benetton ad.
The petition whines that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.”
This is a variation on the widespread belief on campus that unwelcome speech is tantamount to a physical threat. In this case, the speech happens to be some of the most eloquent words written in the English language. One can only pity the exceedingly fragile sensibility it takes to feel assaulted by, say, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”
The petition’s implicit contention is that the major poets are too circumscribed by their race and gender to speak to today’s socially aware students, when, in point of fact, it is the students who are too blinkered by race and gender to marvel at great works of art.
It takes a deeply impoverished imagination to read Shakespeare and regard him simply as an agent of the patriarchy. It is safe to say that the bard is better at expressing what it is like to be a teenage girl in love, or a woman disguised as a man who falls for a man, or a bloody tyrant than almost every actual teenage girl in love, woman disguised as a man or bloody tyrant.
The poet Maya Angelou said in a lecture once that as a child she thought, “Shakespeare must be a black girl.” It was because, growing up in the Jim Crow South, a victim of unspeakable abuse, Sonnet 29 spoke so powerfully to her. (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/ I all alone beweep my outcast state,/ And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,/ And look upon myself and curse my fate.”)
Yale’s petitioners must consider Toni Morrison a traitor to her race and gender. She had an argument with a theater director years ago in which she defended “Othello,” and went on to write a production based on Desdemona, the play’s doomed female character. Or how about Derek Walcott, whom a Yale professor sympathetic to the petitioners suggests adding to the required course? He told The Guardian newspaper a few years ago it would be absurd to say, “Don’t read Shakespeare because he was white.”
Anyone reading widely in the English canon will encounter supremely talented female, black and gay writers. In fact, many other Yale courses feature them. But the creative stream began with so-called dead white males. It is their genius that their words transcend their time and place and have given us phrases, characters and stories that are still vital today.
An official description of the Major English Poets seminar says the classes seek to create a heightened “curiosity about the way language works,” as well as “a confidence in engaging with historically and formally diverse literary texts.” This is a reasonable enough academic goal — unless the students involved are willfully incapable of curiosity or confidence.
There is an easy solution to the dilemma of the aggrieved petitioners: They shouldn’t study English, or anything else that might challenge their absurdly small-minded ideological hobbyhorses.